The Imaginary Invalid and Measure for Pleasure

There are two period comedies running in the DC area right now, separated by only a few blocks. The real historical piece is Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid running at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre. The other, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is David Grimm’s newest play, Measure for Pleasure, which borrow ideas, conventions, and lines from the theatre of the 17th and 18th centuries to create a very modern play about love, lust and sexuality.

In The Imaginary Invalid, Argan imagines himself to be always ill. His life is one of complaints, pills and enemas. He depends upon his doctor’s treatment and advice. But Argan is also stingy. In order to save money he determines to marry his daughter to a doctor, and take advantage of a family discount.

What is most interesting about Keith Baxter’s production is that he sets it within it’s own theatrical time. He intersperses interludes and dances, such as a troupe would have done when originally performing this piece. The problem is that these interludes are actually more interesting and entertaining than the play itself.

The key with these sort of comedies is to hit the right amount of broadness in your characterizations. Some actors are too little or too much. Gia Mora’s performance as Angélique seems to consist solely of making funny faces. Even the performance of Nancy Robinette, one of the best local actors, seems strained and uninspired. Her tone is always one of ironic amusement, and she doesn’t seem to take advantage of all the script offers in the second half.

Some, however, are just right. Kaitlin O’Neal as Argan’s voluptuous second wife Béline, is delightfully greedy, cold and manipulative. She pampers and babies Argan, literally smothering him with her breasts. Levi Ben-Israel is fantastic as Thomas Diafoirus, the awkward, unwanted suitor of Angélique with a sinus problem. He is so successful at being undesirable that he makes even the audience turn away in disgust! René Auberjonois (will I show my geekdom if I just say ODO!?) manages to get both sides of Argan’s nature – he is narcissistic, but also naïve, and at times sympathetically sweet.

In Measure for Pleasure, the cast gets right what The Imaginary Invalid gets wrong. They are always, always human and believable, while still fully committing to extreme choices and ridiculous behavior.

The actors are almost uniformly excellent. The only one who’s not quite up to the task is Doug Brown as Sir Peter Lustforth. All the characters have moments of touching depth, where they realize who they are and how they have behaved. His is the only one that falls flat.

Joel Reuben Ganz plays the servant Will Blunt, who is sort of the audience’s guide to the evening. He is affable, and interacts quite nicely with us, and his happy ending is touching and sweet. Kimberly Schraf also deserves special mention for her strident portrayal of the uptight and puckered Dame Stickle.

Best of all is Jennifer Mendenhall as the deluded Lady Vanity Lustforth, who thinks herself desirable to all men. She is hilarious at her mirror and when drunk, but also gives a full, sobering portrayal of a woman who has been bruised and neglected by her husband. She is so good that her best moment might possible be one where she doesn’t even speak, as she stands and listens to her husband tell her that he wants an annulment.

Grimm’s script steals from everywhere, and the savvy theatre-goer will recognize characters, plots and lines ("Where is that baby?"). And if the resolution takes far too long, the evening is so delightful, that this fault can be forgiven.

Both productions have remarkable designers, and what fun it is to compare the two. First there is the true period piece, The Imaginary Invalid, with lights, costumes and set by Peter West, Robert Perdziola, and Simon Higlett. Then there is the deconstructed design, with contemporary flair, of Measure for Pleasure, with lights, costumes and set by Colin K. Bills, Helen Q. Huang, and Robin Stapley.

The Imaginary Invalid
Through July 27th
3 stars

Measure for Pleasure
Through June 29th
4 stars


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